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Opinion Russia’s war reveals what’s wrong — and right — with the U.N.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks via remote videoconference during a United Nations Security Council meeting at the U.N. headquarters in New York on April 5. (Peter Foley/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had strong words for the United Nations on Tuesday. Speaking via remote video conference to the Security Council a day after he visited the scene of Russian atrocities in Bucha, near Kyiv, Mr. Zelensky depicted Moscow’s war against his country as a failure of the entire U.N. system. “It is obvious that the key institution of the world designed to combat aggression and ensure peace cannot work effectively,” he said. And Mr. Zelensky certainly had a point: Through resolutions that have the character of international law, the Security Council is supposed to be able to deter and punish clear-cut violations of the U.N. charter, such as the invasion of Ukraine that began Feb. 24. This has proved impossible, however, since the invader — Russia — is one of five nations empowered with a Security Council veto. Catch-22.

Does this evident failure support Mr. Zelensky’s broader indictment of the U.N. system? Yes and no. Plainly, obstruction by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s representatives on the Security Council has prevented globally enforceable economic sanctions against Moscow, like those imposed on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and on Iran for unlawful nuclear weapons development in 2006. It is even less conceivable that the council would authorize the use of force to stop Russia, as it did in response to North Korean aggression against South Korea in 1950, or Iraqi aggression against Kuwait in 1990.

This is not a new problem, however; as the North Korea and Iraq exceptions prove, the historical rule is that great-power rivalry prevents Security Council consensus. Other features of the U.N. system nevertheless retain some usefulness, as the current crisis has shown. The first is the charter itself, which, even if not strictly enforced due to the Russian veto, provided Ukraine with an irrefutable legal standard of aggression around which to rally domestic and international support. That norm became the basis of a General Assembly resolution, supported by 141 nations, deploring the Russian attack, defining it, albeit nonbindingly, as illegal aggression, and demanding its cessation. The United Nations has an internationally selected permanent staff, whose titular head — Secretary General António Guterres — has added his voice and prestige to condemnations of Russia’s conduct.

The United Nations, in short, provided a forum, of acknowledged international legitimacy, through which the foes of Moscow’s aggression could apply political pressure to it and, indeed, to all nations, which had to state their positions for the record, contemporary and historical. Crucially, this was a forum that the Russians could influence but not control, as they do their own state-dominated legislatures and media. The truth can at least be stated in Turtle Bay, as Mr. Zelensky himself did.

Obviously, the United Nations did not, by itself, keep the peace in Ukraine, any more than it did in dozens of other cases over the past 77 years. It needs reform, and the U.S.-backed proposal to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which passed the General Assembly on Thursday, was a step in that direction. For all its defects, though, the United Nations still offers potential advantages to the cause of peace and security — in Ukraine and elsewhere.